J.F. Kennedy High School baseball coach Eric Mills always believed his team had the potential to win an elusive Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament championship.
Now the Mustangs, who have won five straight games to overcome a relatively slow start, are in position to reach their fourth conference tournament final and claim their first league title.
“I always knew we had the talent,” Mills said. “It was just a matter of us putting it together. It’s not always the best team that wins, but it’s the hottest and we are playing pretty well right now.”
The seventh-seeded Mustangs, with ace Adonis Hernandez (3-1, 1.92 ERA, 70 Ks, 18 BBs, 40 IP) taking the mound for today’s 11 a.m. semifinal against third-seeded South Plainfield at East Brunswick Tech, have an excellent chance to advance.
Ninth-seeded Monroe, which knocked off top-seeded and defending champion Middlesex in the quarterfinals, faces fourth-seeded South Brunswick in the other semifinal at 2 p.m.
The aces of all four semifinalists — including Monroe’s Danny Marsh, South Brunswick’s Sean Keenan and South Plainfield’s A.J. Celentano — are available to start on three days’ rest.
Hernandez, who threw just 70 pitches in a mercy-rule victory on Tuesday, is looking to avenge a 7-2 loss to reigning White Division champion South Plainfield, which swept the regular-season series (the Tigers rallied for five runs in the sixth for a 6-3 win in the other meeting) .
In his defeat to South Plainfield, Hernandez struck out 10 but hit three batters and enigmatically allowed 10 hits (he’s yielded just 21 hits – only one for extra bases – and hit five batters all season).
Hernandez, who has topped out at 92 mph on the radar gun, has good movement on his two-seam fastball. He has an outstanding slider and this season added a changeup.
“I think with Adonis on the mound we are dangerous and we can beat anybody,” Mills said. “I’ve thought that from the beginning of the year but we just weren’t hitting. Baseball is a funny game. The ball wasn’t bouncing our way. We were 7-10 (on May 3) and we just got on a roll.”
Mills said being battle-tested in division play prepared the Mustangs for a postseason run. The balanced six-team White Division boasts three GMCT semifinalists.
J.F. Kennedy (12-10), which is averaging 11 runs per game during its recent winning streak, has finally put all the pieces together.
In Hernandez and Joe Stone (7-1, 2.56), the Mustangs have two quality starters. J.F. Kennedy was, however, committing too many errors (24 unearned runs) and not getting enough offensive balance earlier this season.
Hernandez (.313), Zach Buchholz (.311), Chad Barrall (.325), Tom Farley (.303) and Matt DeParis (319) have raised their batting averages from the low .200s to above .300. Their improvement at the plate has taken pressure off Stone (.421) and Eric Giordano (.479), the team’s most consistent hitters.
“When we were seeded, obviously we weren’t playing good baseball,” said Mills, who, like assistant coach Bob Merkler, possess a remarkably calm demeanor that reflects the disposition of a team that never panicked.
“We are finally putting all three facets together – hitting, pitching and playing defense.”
The Mustangs, who are batting .313 as a team and averaging 6.2 runs per game, don’t play much small ball.
They have accumulated just seven stolen bases and eight sacrifice bunts. J.F. Kennedy, however, packs some pop (42 doubles, 10 homers, 7 triples) and can be selective (80 walks) at the plate.
Barrall’s team-leading fourth homer – a three-run, sixth-inning blast – gave the Mustangs some much-needed breathing room in their quarterfinal victory.
J.F. Kennedy advanced to the semifinals with a 10-0 win over 23rd-seeded South River (8-15 overall, 2-10 Blue Division) and a 10-5 comeback victory over 15th-seeded Piscataway (8-15 overall, 3-11 Red Division).
Now, with the imposing Hernandez on the mound, the Mustangs have a chance to reach the tournament final for the first time in 13 years.